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Best DEET, Picaridin, and Natural Insect Repellents: How to Choose

Insect Repellents

DEET and Picaridin-based insect repellent sprays and lotions are available from a wide range of brands and in a variety of forms factors. How effective are they are repelling mosquitos and ticks? What are the best concentrations to get? Which one’s are the safest to use for children and pregnant women? Can insect repellents damage clothing and gear? Are lotions and wipes more effective that pump-sprays or aerosol cans? Are there any natural products that have also proven effective at repelling mosquitos and ticks?

Insect Repellents: Key Takeaways

  • DEET and Picaridin insect repellents are more effective and longer lasting than most natural insect repellents and oils
  • 20% and 30% concentrations are just effective as 100%, but may need to be applied more often
  • Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), a natural insect repellent, is also quite effective in a 30% concentration. Other natural products are not effective.
  • Insect repellents are best used in conjunction with protective clothing. Wear a long sleeve shirt, long pants and head net when insects are most active.
  • Apply Permethrin to clothing or purchase Insect Shield treated clothing, which repels insects and helps prevent them from biting through clothing.
  • Wrist bands, clip on fans, citronella candles, and natural repellents like lemon grass, cinnamon, cedar, clove, rosemary or spearmint don’t work very well.
  • Read insect repellent instructions carefully and apply as directed. Many questions are answered by reading product directions or manufacturers safety sheets, found online.

Insect Repellents: In-depth

DEET

DEET (N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) is found in Sawyer Jungle Juice (concentration of 98%), Ben’s 100 Max Formula Insect Repellent (95%) and Repel 100 Insect Repellent Spray (98%). In use since 1946, it’s the most widely used insect repellent today, and highly effective against mosquitos and ticks. The smell of DEET is highly offensive to mosquitos who avoid the scent.

Studies have found that the 20%-30% concentrations of DEET are just as effective as the 100% concentrations listed above, but need to be applied more frequently. DEET with a 100% concentration can last up to 12 hours, while 30% DEET concentrations last up to 6 hours before requiring reapplication.

Lower concentration 30% DEET is also available in slow-release lotions, which can last up to 12 hours before needing to be reapplied. Ultrathon 34% Insect Repellent is the most popular long-lasting formulation and ideal for overseas travel to areas infested with malaria-carrying mosquitos because a little goes a long way.

One of the downsides of DEET-based insect repellent is that it will fog plastic lenses on watch faces, smartphones, and glasses. It also dissolves nylon-based clothing, so be very careful when applying it to keep it away from plastic and synthetics.

30% concentrations of DEET are safe for use by pregnant women and small children. When applying DEET to children, don’t let them apply it themselves. Instead, spray it or rub it on your hands before rubbing it on exposed skin. Do not apply near eyes and mouth, and apply sparingly around ears. Avoid applying DEET to their hands because children frequently put their hands in their mouth and eyes. Only apply to skin that is exposed and not under clothing. Avoid the use of DEET near food and water. Wash with soap and water at the end of the day.

Picaridin

Picaridin became available in the United States in 2005 and is a synthetic compound, related in structure to black pepper. It repels mosquitoes, ticks, biting flies, sand flies, gnats, chiggers, and midges. It is widely used in Europe and recommended by the World Heath Organization for the prevention of malaria in 40 countries.

The most effective concentration of Picaridin is 20% and will last up 8-12 hours before repeat application is required. Lower concentrations, sometimes found in wipes are only moderately less effective.

Unlike DEET, Picaridin is safe to use around plastics, synthetic apparel, and gear with synthetic coatings such as fishing line, sunglasses, watches, GPS units or phone screens.

Picaridin is considered to be safe for children as young as 2 months of age and pregnant women. Contact with the eyes and mouth should be avoided however, and the usage directions followed carefully.

Lotions, Wipes, Aerosols, and Pumps

Insect Repellent lotions last considerably longer than sprays of comparable DEET or Picaridin concentrations, because the repellent is rubbed into the skin, delaying evaporation. It’s also far more accurate than applying insect repellent than with a spray or pump because it’s easy to accidentally miss areas. Wipes also provide an effective way to apply insect repellent to the skin, but result in additional waste which must be disposed of after use.

Spray-on and pump sprays containing DEET are also harder to direct accurately when applied and can ruin plastic gear or synthetic garments if the spray is accidentally applied to them. If you accidentally apply DEET to gear and clothing, immediately rinse it off with plenty of water to prevent damage.

Natural Insect Repellents

Research studies by the Centers for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Consumers Union have shown that Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE) is the only effective natural insect repellent proven effective against mosquitos and ticks. It’s important not to confuse this product with Lemon Eucalyptus Oil which is a very different product.

OLE, available as Repel Lemon Eucalyptus is effective for up to 6 hours in a 30% concentration. However, OLE has not been well-tested on children and the CDC and Consumer Union advise against using it on children under 3 years of age.  Natural insect repellents including citronella, spearmint, clove, lemon grass, and other botanicals have not proven to be an effective insect repellent for mosquitos and ticks.

What’s your preferred insect repellent for mosquitos and ticks?

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2 comments

  1. I used to work part-time at a ropes course here in Florida and developed a skin reaction to DEET like a mild sunburn due to frequent use, a known side-effect for some. I switched to picaridin and have been using it ever since. I’m never bothered by any bugs, no skin reactions, plus it’s odorless. I use the Sawyer lotion. Picaridin for skin, Permethrin for clothing and gear.

    On a side note, for any other folks exploring DEET alternatives, picaridin was only just becoming available at that time so prior I did discover Off! Botanicals, a lotion that actually worked (at least for mosquitoes; this wasn’t a tick area). The only downside was that in hot weather, sweating would require more frequent re-application. But it absolutely worked, as one of my skeptical co-leaders found out when they forgot their repellent. I seem to recall one of the ingredients was the key compound in eucalyptus, but without the odor of pure eucalyptus repellents. I consider it good for the cookout or casual outing. The lotion is hard to find now and I don’t know if the current wipes are as good, but they look expensive. Anyway, another option for folks steering clear of DEET.

  2. The Black Flies and Mosquitos are terrible at this time of year here in Northern Ontario Canada.

    I’ve tried every repellant known including making my own and Avon Skin-So-Soft. The Deet based work best but are far too toxic. I like the and now only use the Picaridin based products as they aren’t toxic on the skin and they work just about as well as the Deet based products.

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